Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And That, My Liege, Is How We Know the Earth to Be Banana-Shaped

An essay by: Witney Seibold


To start, a (very) brief history  Monty Python formed in 1969, amalgamating British sketch comedy programmes “At Last, the 1948 Show” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” School chums John Cleese and Graham Chapman from one and friends Michael Palin and Terry Jones from the other, joined up with other working comedian Eric Idle, and bizarre American animator Terry Gilliam, and formed one of the most unique and funniest comedy shows in the history of television. It was called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and it was a small hit, and lasted for four-and-a-half years. It was absurd on a new level and even during the sixties, a time of widespread subversion, felt subversive. It eventually crept over to the
U.S., cementing its popularity as a cult phenomenon. The show split in 1974, and the lads moved to movies, making three: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” (1975) “Monty’ Python’s Life of Brian,” (1979) and “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” (1983) (“And Now for Something Completely Different” I guess counts too). The group also toured with live shows for a number of years, but soon disbanded thereafter. Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989. The rest are still living and working. Palin has his own travel show. Idle tours with songs. Cleese has a recurring role in the recent James Bond movies, Jones hosts documentaries and occasionally directs, and Gilliam has made some of his own movies, including “
Brazil” and “The Fisher King.”

More than one person reading this essay can recite the entirety of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It’s not merely a comedy. It’s not merely a cult movie. It’s become – through years of nerds passing down from one generation to the next – the touchstone film, the single central secret Masonic password into various worlds of nerds, film fanatics, British comedy lovers, and adorers of Monty Python. Once you are part of the world of “Holy Grail,” you automatically have a baseline social stratus.


“Look, you stupid bastard, you’ve got no arms left!” “Yes I have.”


“Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”


“Are you suggesting that coconuts migrate?”


“Bring out your dead!”


“I’m not dead yet! I’m getting better!”


“Spank me!” “And me!” “And me!”


“Not to leave the room, even if you come and get him.”


 “I’m not quite dead, sir!”


“We have found a witch, may we burn her?”


“What else floats in water?”


“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”


The list is endless. The dialogue is infectiously quotable. And the infection will burrow its way into your idiom. You will, once you’ve seen the film and enjoyed it and laughed at it, become, to whatever degree, a lover of it. You may not be a part of the Cult like some people are, but, damn it’s hard not to enjoy the sheer anarchic joy of Monty Python.


You know if you are part of this cult/nerd realm. You probably play a lot of “Halo”, can name the characters from “Red Dwarf,” have bootleg alternate cuts of the “Evil Dead” movies, read “Fangoria” or “Video Watchdog,” have theories as to how the second “Resident Evil” movie could have been made that much better (or much much better, depending on which way you opine), or have waited in line more than three hours to see a movie. Bonus points if you’ve waited overnight, and even more bonus points if you’ve waited overnight, with friends, in shifts, in costume.


(I myself had most all of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” on VHS. I received most of them on DVD as a gift – thanks to my sister – so gave away my VHS, and bought the remainder of the series on DVD. Then, once I had the whole series, swapped them all out for a complete box set with other bonus discs. I’m that devoted. So, yes, I’m part of the cult as well.)


You will join us. Even if you don’t have the film memorized, part of you will smile each time you hear the word “ni.” You’ll smirk each time you recall a little white bunny violently ripping someone’s head off. There is something primally funny about “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It is certainly one of the funniest films I have seen, and, despite occasionally being overexposed by the aforementioned legion of cultists, still has the power to make me laugh, and to make armies of the indoctrinated to laugh as well.

Chaos vs. Order


I used the phrase “anarchic joy” earlier. Please stay with me as I expound with a bit of theory:


Slapstick comedy only works if a major element of the film is taken deadly seriously. For an example, I’ll use the slapstick classic “Airplane!,” (1981): Alongside a cornucopia of bizarre and over-the-top absurd dealings, Airplane!” features a cartoonish living inflatable auto-pilot, and a scene where a disembodied human heart leaps around a desk of its own accord. These are absurd, and hence funny, things in themselves, and I would probably have snickered lightly to see them. What elevates these silly little things from mere gags into comedy gold, is the attitude of the characters. No one seems to really realize. Or perhaps simply refuse to acknowledge, the absurdity of what is going on. In the heart-leaping scene, one character stays calm and oblivious on the telephone while the heart does its thing. The inflatable auto-pilot is merely accepted as the characters discuss in the foreground the peril they’re in.


The absurdity becomes funnier of it is balanced by order and earnestness. We are seeing an earnest film with an earnest plot, but we are periodically (or in the case of “Airplane!” constantly) tripped up by something bizarre, funny or unexpected.


“Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” however, reaches levels of absurdity that I have not seen in any film before or since (the only other film I can think of that comes close is Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 experiment “Schizopolis,” but it could be argued that it’s not really a comedy, per se). And it’s not just situational absurdity; in “Holy Grail” the jokes seem to permeate the entire universe itself. You’re not merely waiting for the next gag to begin in an otherwise benign film. You realize very quickly that the entire world of “Holy Grail” is infected with the potential for… I’d say “jokes,” but that’s too light a word. I’ll say “comic chaos.” Even as the credits being to roll, and we see, blurry at the bottom, Swedish subtitles. Kinda cute. But then we see that the subtitles begin their own agenda apart from the film. They begin advertising for a holiday to
Sweden, and then they get distracted telling stories of moose bites. Even the jokes themselves get lost in the sheer chaos of their own comedy. The subtitles end up breaking down the entire credit sequence, and the film must alter itself into something flashy and noisy at the last minute.


This is the King Arthur story though, so onto the knights and stuff…


We hear a horse clopping through the mist. King Arthur (Graham Chapman, giving a wonderfully bold and earnest performance) appears, noble and regal in the murk. We are quickly transported to the epic stories of King Arthur, to the days of medieval magic and monsters. We think of the knights of the Round Table, of Merlin, of Excalibur. But just as quickly as the film has evoked these images, it deflates them but presenting us with the unacknowledged fact that King Arthur is not on a horse. He is pretending to ride a horse, and the clopping we heard is merely his assistant (Terry Gilliam) clopping two coconut halves together. He then announces himself to a castle in the fog. A silhouetted figure appears above. The figure immediately recognizes that he is not riding a horse, but using coconut halves, and they proceed to get into an argument as to how exactly he could have come upon coconuts in
England. No one bothers to ask where his horse is or why he is pretending to ride one. No one thinks that the origin of the coconuts doesn’t matter. In fact, they get caught up in the abilities of swallows to carry coconuts, and it becomes a running gag.


And the film proceeds on that level, barely having time to set up a situation before its mocking itself. There is very little order in this universe. When the word “Camelot!” is shouted, there is an impromptu and very silly dance number entirely separate from the characters. After the dance, the characters decide not to go to Camelot, as it is a silly place.


(The songs by Niel Innes and Eric Idle are peppy and silly and fun. The “Knight of the Round Table” song, once you learn the lyrics, is wonderful. The “Sir Robin” song actually contains the lyric “…and his nostrils raped.”)


A friend of mine recently expressed a particular love for the scene in which Sir Lancelot (John Cleese), in response to a note, charges to rescue. As he approaches the castle on foot, he is seen advancing over the same hill five times. We cut back to the guards, who look on in curiosity. We cut back to Lancelot, and it’s the same clip again. And again. He does not appear to be getting any closer because he isn’t. Then, suddenly, he has arrived at the door, and begins his killing spree.


Galahad (Michael Palin), whose only virtue seems to be that he doesn’t have sex, of course lands himself in a castle full of buxom and very horny young women. Carol Cleveland, who plays Zoot and her twin sister Dingo, was “the woman” of the group leftover from the shows, and she’s funny and a terrific sport.


The film has no rules. Clips are repeated. People inexplicably teleport. The word “ni” seems to cause harm. God Himself is animated, and insists that the knights “quit groveling.” And there is even, at one point, a bleeding into the modern age as an historian gives a very frank lecture as to the state of the story (obviously a jibe at the television documentaries so popular in Britain at the time). Before he can say anything of too much import, though, he is brutally slaughtered by a passing knight on horseback. A police investigation begins. Chaos reigns in this movie, and while you understand that anything can happen, you’re still surprised when it does. The layers of reality are peeled back further and further. At one point (level 1) King Arthur and his men are attacked by a monster in a cave, only the monster is animated (level 2), a narrator begins to dictate the action (level 3), and explains that the monster is defeated because the animator has suffered a heart attack (level 4). The film is constantly reminding us that it is indeed a film we are watching. And yet, with its earnest deliveries, Arthurian story, and (more on this in a moment) murky photography, seems to want us to take it seriously.

And that is a brilliant and hysterical approach to comedy. Beg to have the audience take you seriously and not laugh, while simultaneously throwing pies.


The film’s ending is a brilliant and unexpected masterstroke. It is not merely the culmination of a running gag, but a total intervention of reality in an otherwise silly film. I saw “Holy Grail” theatrically once, and many people stayed in the theater after the lights had come up expecting more; they could not believe that what they had just seen was indeed the film’s end.


The earth is banana-shaped.

About that photography


After “Flying Circus” had ended in 1974, and thanks to the underground success of the theatrical release of some of their more popular sketches called “And Now for Something Completely Different,” made in 1971, (but not gaining an American cult for a few years), the troupe decided to make a movie. King Arthur had been floating around for a while. The series’ director, Ian MacNaughton, was not into directing films


In a meeting, the lads decided, arbitrarily, to allow anyone named Terry to direct. Thus Terry Jones (who  also plays Sir Bedevere) and Terry Gilliam (who plays The Old Man from Scene 24) became the directors. Early in the production process, though, it was decided that Jones handle the actual job of directing scenes and actors and what not and Gilliam take charge of the design and look of the piece. Terry Jones is a funny and capable director, and made his masterpiece with the troupe’s next film “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.” “Brian” is a wonderful film, and deserves to be lionized with the troupe’s best work, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of silliness that “Holy Grail” achieves.


That Terry Gilliam was in charge of the film’s design is especially significant to people familiar with Gilliam’s body of work as a director. Gilliam, the only American of Monty Python, was solely in charge of the aggressively surreal paper-cutout animations on the show (which should let you know where he’s coming from), and later went on to direct carnival-dark madcap films like “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “12 Monkeys,” the film adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” and, his take on 1984, and his best film, “Brazil.” Gilliam’s budding visual sensibility is in full-force in “Holy Grail.” His look is dank. It is busy. It is energetic, true, but it is dirty. It is a gloomy storybook illustration created by a mad OCD-infected artist come to muddy life.


The film was shot on the cheap, too, so things have a patched-together look. The castles in the film were all only two separate castles (privately owned so they could be rented). Camelot really is a model. The sets are shabby, and the army that shows up at the end was really only about 100 people shot at low angles so they’ll look bigger. The entire film only cost to the tune of $1.1 million. A tiny sum, even for 1975.


I was amazed, watching this film again, how gloomy everything is. This film is supposed to be a comedy, and it looks like Ingmar Bergman on one of his bad days. The Castle Anthrax is black and echoey. The scenes in the woods are foggy and shadowy. There are scenes of people thwacking cats against walls. People are piled dead onto carts. A pair of peasants are collection a big pile of filth in a basket. And, most notably, when the black knight’s arms are severed in one of the film’s most famous sequences, blood squirts out in vast quantities.


There’s a lot of dark and dirty stuff in this movie. By all accounts, we should feel miserable. But we don’t. We laugh. And raucously at that. The dirty photography, in light of my chaos vs. order argument, actually helps to accentuate the comedy. If the film’s humor stems from its ability to full exploit the reality of life with its absurdity, what better way to do that than drive those two elements to extremes? One the one hand we have the dark, dirty, gritty, shitty existence that medieval people must have lived (“He must be a king. He hasn’t got shit all over him”), and on the other, we have the obviously absurd thing listed ad nauseum above. I can think of no other film to use darkness and dirt in the same manner; it’s a comic device not even tried by other comedians. In fact, all the other slapstick comedies I can think of are intentionally bright and illuminated. Even the Marx Brothers, with some somewhat-dark material in “Duck Soup,” are distinctly “up” all the time.

The Brittiness


Of course, this is one of the tenets of British film. I’ve seen a lot of British cult comedy (from “Red Dwarf” to “Kind Heart & Coronets” to “Withnail and I”), and all the characters, at the end of the day, still resent or hate one another. The joke of most American comedies (and I’m thinking primarily of “The Simpsons” in this respect), is that, although they bicker and do cruel things to one another from time to time, they really love each other. There is no such brightness in much British comedy. The characters bicker, and they belittle one another, and it’s all because that’s how they really feel about one another. Why is this funny? Because in England, a land infected with a regal and aristocratic past of good manners and high-minded royal good-behaviour (the current royal family notwithstanding), it’s refreshing and shocking (in an amusing way) to finally break out and be rude and hateful to someone. It’s a release to drop the façade of good behavior and rip into a so-called friend of yours.


This rude hatefulness translates in “Holy Grail” as the darkness mentioned above. They understand that tragedy and comedy are inextricably linked, and it’s possible to have one co-existing with the other.

But then…


But then, perhaps I’m overanalyzing. “Holy Grail” is not necessarily a grand treatise on the connection of human life to the yin-yang of comedy and tragedy. It’s actually a bizarre and cheap little comedy film that has the uncanny ability to make most everyone peal out in the most genuine of belly laughs.


I invite you to watch it again, cultists, newbies, lovers, and fighters. Laugh and laugh honestly. Laugh and laugh big. Cause, dangit, this is one of the funniest movies there is.

Published in: on May 14, 2007 at 9:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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